Lance Armstrong, Rick Reilly, and Why I Put No Faith in Symbols
Sometimes I just can't let things go. Sportswriter Rick Reilly's response to being "duped" by Lance Armstrong appears to be one of those things.
For about a week after my father was diagnosed with cancer, I wore one of those yellow, rubber Livestrong bracelets. Some well-wisher – I don’t know who – had dropped a handful by my father’s hospital room along with an inches-thick binder from the Livestrong foundation that seemed to be some kind of cancer “manual.”
I’ve never been a fan of symbolic solidarity. To me, the support our troops car magnets, the pink “save the ta-ta’s” ribbons, even the flag pin on a politician’s lapel substitute sentiment for support, symbol for action, so I was not pre-disposed to display my sympathies in the form of a rubber bracelet. Following the success of the Livestrong bracelet initiative, it seemed like every charity jumped on the bandwagon. I remember my students at the time with six or eight different colors running up their arms, and I’d wonder how many causes there could possibly be. I suppose the idea was that the higher the bracelets climbed, the more they cared.
Livestrong’s mission is to “address the unmet needs of cancer survivors.” I believe their use of “survivor” isn’t limited to people who experience cure or remission, but also seeks to include anyone diagnosed with cancer who is still living, regardless of their condition.
Maybe it’s the writer in me, but I have to reject the word “survivor” in relation to my father’s experience. While he met the period between his diagnosis and his passing with tremendous grace and equanimity, he was, for sure, not surviving, but dying, not only because dying is ultimately what happened, but because even as he lived, dying was indeed the experience of his life for those six or so months.
And in a lot of ways, I’m glad for that. We, or at least I, spent very little time investing in any kind of false hope that what he was dealing with was survivable. It wasn’t. And knowing it wasn’t didn’t diminish the man, but actually demonstrated the opposite, that there’s other honorable responses to cancer than to “fight.”
There’s a real dignity in honesty. My father showed me that.
I’m thinking about Lance Armstrong and symbols because after I wrote about how the sportswriter Rick Reilly had some explaining of his own to do regarding his about-face on his support of the superstar athlete, I was alerted by Robert Johnson, the co-founder of LetsRun.com, to a Reilly column from last September headlined, “Lance Still Worth Revering.”
Even granting that columnists are often not responsible for their own headlines, it is an accurate reflection of Reilly’s sentiments. Reilly writes in response to Armstrong’s decision last year to stop contesting the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation’s into Armstrong’s use of illegal performance enhancers, saying that he was,
“wearing something yellow Friday for Lance Armstrong. Not because I think he's innocent. He just gave up his chance to prove his innocence, so I suppose he isn't.
But I don't care. I'm wearing yellow just to say thank you. If he cheated in a sport where cheating is as common as eating, then I'm wearing yellow to thank him for everything he's done since he cheated.”
Reilly goes on to grudgingly admit that Armstrong might be guilty of what USADA accuses him of, while simultaneously excusing it by pointing out, “all their evidence, is based on testimony, not tests,” and that the testimony came from previously exposed liars like former teammates Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton.
Reilly declares, “In five years, nobody will want to check to see if Lance Armstrong's name is still attached to those trophies. But in five years, they'll still want him leading any peloton that's trying to chase down cancer.”
Maybe not so much. Armstrong resigned from his own Livestrong foundation not long after USADA released its October report.
And somehow, 4 ½ months later, Rick Reilly has changed his mind as well. On Thursday, Reilly was calling himself a chump for believing Armstrong. He says that somehow Armstrong “knew” that Reilly would go out and repeat the lies unquestioningly.
Reilly admits it’s “partially” his fault, that he let it get “personal,” which is probably the most glaring, but unintentional admission of the 11-time sportswriter of the year’s journalistic failures. As soon as it became personal, he should’ve stopped using his very prominent outlets to write about Lance Armstrong, using the imprimaturs of Sports Illustrated and ESPN to provide cover for his friend.
I feel some measure of sympathy for Reilly’s hurt. He seems to feel genuinely betrayed. But if ESPN was any kind of journalistic enterprise (which it is not), what Reilly did is a potentially fire-able offense.
I think anyone deserves forgiveness should they seek it, but it needs to go beyond the symbolic. Prostrating yourself before Oprah doesn’t seem particularly genuine to me. An angry column about something you excused 4 ½ months earlier feels hollow.
If these people, 7-time Tour de France winner, 11-time sportswriter of the year, are to be admired, they need to make a better practice of honesty.
During the week or so I wore the Livestrong bracelet, I would take it off to shower, and seeing it on the vanity, I would think about what it meant to put it back on, what was behind that symbol. It never felt comfortable, but for several days, I slipped it over my wrist because I thought that to refuse to do so meant somehow that I was giving up on my father, that if I wasn’t prepared to “fight,” I was failing.
But as more news of my father's condition came clear, the metastasis, the degree of advancement, the limited options, it seemed like fighting wasn’t really on the table, that the only thing left was to lose with as much dignity as possible. One day, instead of putting the bracelet on, I threw it in the garbage and felt instantly better. The last months were awful, but we weren’t going to lie to each other about it.
Livestrong has also distanced itself from its founder and symbol, saying in a statement, “Earlier this week, Lance apologized to our staff and we accepted his apology in order to move on and chart a strong, independent course.”
Apparent emphasis on the word “independent.”
Rick Reilly thinks (or at least thought) that Lance Armstrong is/was a hero because he faced down cancer and beat it, and inspired others (like Reilly’s own sister) to do the same. In September, Armstrong the symbol was apparently worth supporting. I don’t know what’s changed for Reilly, other than maybe Armstrong’s emailed apology wasn’t sufficient.
I guess my father’s cancer story is not a heroic one because he didn’t win his battle – it wasn’t even close to be honest - but I’ll take the real over the merely symbolic any day.
On Twitter, lots of people seem to feel that Lance's means justified the ends. I don't get it, quite honestly.
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